Sounds Different: Listening to the city

Different auditory spaces of the modern city, such as those produced by smart phones, offer insights into the experience of urbanisation and technological modernisation

Why listen?


o often the city is apprehended as a visual spectacle, its marvels of architectural and technological mediation understood through the prism of the visual.1 This reliance on seeing as a mode of understanding is not peculiar to urbanism or architecture, but is in keeping with the wider experience of historical modernisation itself, tending as it has to privilege visual over other modes of experience. Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris, for example, is widely recognised as refashioning the city as a space of scenic composition; the introduction of networked transit has likewise been associated with an increased emphasis on the ‘travelling eye’ in shaping experiential responses to the changing cityscape.2 Reflecting on the impact of public conveyances in the city of Berlin during the first years of the 20th century, Georg Simmel wrote:

The interpersonal relationships of people in big cities are characterised by markedly greater emphasis on the use of the eyes than that of the ears. This can be attributed to the institution of public conveyances. […] Before buses, railroads and trains became fully established during the 19th century, people were never in a position to have to stare at one another for minutes or even hours on end without ever exchanging a word.3

Indeed, innovations in technologies of seeing have been fundamental to the modern project of city building. The establishment of aerial perspective is credited with unleashing a wave of rethinking about urbanism, enabling the city to be revealed in minute detail. To Le Corbusier, it ratified a conviction about the bankruptcy of the urban architectural past and the need to generate new spatial forms. The panoramic control that Le Corbusier so required for his architectural accomplishments depended on his capacity to set himself apart, to view from above the disorderly spaces of the old city, a viewpoint instructive of the need for a new urban consciousness.4

Though fundamental to the production of urban form, technologies of vision are also, increasingly, subject to critique, prompting an ever-expanding search for alternative methodologies through which to encounter the urban terrain. While ‘sensory urbanism’5 may be a relatively new framework of orientation to the city, the politicisation of vision that lies at its heart reaches beyond urbanism and can be aligned to a more fundamental critique of modernity as established by Heidegger.

The instrumentalisation of reason by technology, traced by Heidegger to an increasingly dominant way of thinking that gained ground during the Renaissance, has necessarily transformed the way we know and think about the world, reducing it to an object made for and by sight. He thus described the ‘conquest of the world as picture’ as ‘the fundamental event of the modern age’. Such a conquest has, he argued, necessitated a separation or withdrawal of the active, transforming self from a nature progressively conceived as passive, constraining and unconscious. With this separation has come what Heidegger called the Gestell, a systematic visual enframing of the world as a separated object of knowledge. Through the Gestell, implicit throughout Western language and forms of discourse, ‘“knowledge” has become the state of having seen’.6

In such accounts the powers of vision have been linked to the rise of an instrumental rationality peculiar to modernity, which differentiates and dominates at the expense of other ways of knowing the world. Critiques of ‘visualism’ have subsequently become commonplace, matched by an enlivened interest in recovering non-visual histories of the modern self, allowing for a closer appreciation of auditory and other sensory phenomena within broader accounts of modern subjectivity. This ‘turn’ toward alternative sensory modes of socio-cultural and architectural enquiry has generated notable interest in the particular qualities of sound, premised on recognition that, as Smith has put it, ‘Knowing the world through sound is fundamentally different from knowing the world through vision.’7

This paper examines how tuning the ear towards modern auditory experience has opened up innovative and nuanced ways of understanding the experience of technological modernity in the city. Divided into two sections, the paper first considers a range of historical and cultural studies of sound and listening in the city, addressing the way sound has been used to undo the ‘spell of objectification’ and distanciation associated with a visual enframing of the world. The rise of an auditory sensibility has helped to underline the co-constitutive nature of urban forms, spatial practices and media technologies as being central to the historical experience of urban modernisation. The second section moves on to consider contemporary mediated listening practices which are treated in relation to public urban spaces, with a particular focus on the use of smartphones. Situating mobile listening practices within histories of sound technology in the city, the paper considers the curated listening spaces created by contemporary sound artists and practitioners as new pathways for sense-making within the city-screens of today’s digitally mediated cities.

Shifting spaces I: amplifying modernity

In the turn towards sound, particularly within historical accounts of modern subjectivity, auditory experience is often positioned as something of a redemptive space, where metaphors of sound and listening are used to elevate non-instrumentalist modes of reason. Here the experiential quality of sound is presented somewhat heuristically, as a means by which to promote the qualities of affective, phenomenological experience against the instrumental rationality associated with visual, representational forms. Heidegger, for example, drew on aural metaphors to express the belonging of Dasein (being-in-the-world) to Being.8 Hanns Eisler and Theodor Adorno also consider sound as establishing a direct relation to collective experience, suggesting that ‘acoustical perception preserves comparably more traits of long, by-gone pre-individualistic collectivities than optical perception’.9 Recognising the qualities of the auditory in his quest for a new field of knowledge, Marxist urban sociologist Lefebvre turned to the concept of rhythm, influenced here by Bachelard, who approached the experience of an image not purely according to its visual impact but by its ‘reverberations’.10 Addressing what he called the ‘division of labour between the senses’, Simmel too was attracted to the relational spatiality of the auditory, arguing: ‘The ear transmits a wealth of divergent moods of individuals, the flow and the momentary external expression of thoughts and impulses, the entire polarity of subjective as well as objective life’. To Simmel, the ear is an ‘egoistic organ pure and simple, which only takes, but does not give’.11 Thrift has also turned to sound to notate a more protean, heterogeneous field of performative action. Moving from the visual toward the aural metaphor, Thrift argues that we must think of concepts as ‘indefinite – that is, they are open and fluid, their main purpose is not to “represent” but to “resonate”’.12 For Ong, sound reveals interior events, as opposed to visual appearance, which only reveals the surface of objects.13

The resurgent interest in sounding spatiality has helped to advance this revisionist reading of human subjectivity through a number of recent histories and ethnographies of the senses. In The Third Ear, Berendt suggests that the dominance of the eye has ‘limited our imagination’ and argues that human experience must now be accounted for through a ‘democracy of the senses’.14 The documentation of ‘hearing cultures’ – what Clifford Geertz called the ‘ethnographic ear’ – provides different ways of conceptualising culture. To Erlmann it offers ‘important insights into a wide range of issues confronting societies around the world, as they grapple with the massive changes wrought by modernisation, technologisation, and globalisation’.15 Within the field of urban and architectural history, the auditory turn has worked to correct the neglected place of sound in accounts of modernity and industrialisation. Sound historian Stephen Connor has suggested that embracing sound culture can allow for a subjectivity more closely attuned to dispersal and displacement. Rodaway, too, argues that auditory geography is ‘time-space geography, a dynamic geography of events rather than images, or activity rather than scene’.16 For scholars critically engaged with sensory urbanism, the study of sound has helped amplify more sensory, and situated, accounts of cities. To Zardini, this has not simply been a matter of neglect; the techniques of architecture and urban planning have deliberately privileged those qualities of urban space captured by visual perception, treating sounds and odours as highly disturbing elements, and are ‘exclusively ... concerned with marginalising them, covering them up, or eliminating them altogether’.17 For architect Pallasmaa, the mutability of sound presents itself as a constructive resource; just as the qualities of concrete and steel might be manipulated by designers to promote a satisfactory architectural composition in space, Pallasmaa argues that sound too might be deliberately manipulated to promote an intimate, multi-sensory experience of place. Through a tuning of the ear, Pallasmaa seeks to establish an architectural sensibility that recognises the interrelatedness of all the senses, promoting the potential for architectural design to nourish and support not only visual but auditory and haptic forms of experience as well.18

A diagram illustrating sources of sound in the city drawn up by New York City's Department of Health Sound Abatement Comission

It is in the context of this revisionist work on sound and the senses that urban sound historians, including Thompson, Connor, Bijsterveld and Sterne, have turned their attention to the emergent noise-scapes of the modern city. Their work reminds us that the way we hear is culturally and historically contingent, such that practices of listening need to be explored not simply as a kind of pure interiority, but as particular cultural formations. Indeed, through closer readings of auditory experiences in time, we come to understand that the human sensorium has always been mediated. As put by John Cage: ‘Try as we might to make a silence, we cannot.’19 Sound histories of urban experience emphasise the extent to which listening practices have been profoundly modulated by technologies of amplification, as they establish parameters of socio-spatial sensibility and reception. The practice of listening is thus situated as a historically mediated experience of technology.

To Sterne, ‘Listening is a directed, learned activity: it is a definite cultural practice.’20 Sterne’s history of the cultural origins of sound reproduction deliberately steps away from the habitual tendency to position the technological device and its forms of innovation as agents of change, and instead connects innovations in sound technology with the shifting listening practices that they precipitate. The role of sound practices in shaping socio-spatial sensibilities and configurations has not, of course, been unique to the modern city but has a longer history. Disclosing the associations of technologies of noise or loudness with power, Alain Corbin’s study of 19th-century countryside France carefully documents the correlations between loudness of bells and the relative significance of various parishes and municipalities. Traux also discussed the importance of sonic events – ‘sound marks’ – as the auditory components of landmarks, sounds that were of high symbolic, historical and practical value. He notes that in many towns, only those who lived within the acoustic arena of the most important sound marks (church bells, chiming clocks) were considered citizens of the town, such that the size of a township was effectively determined by the acoustic geography of its sound marks.21

Such auditory practices were profoundly dislocated in the dawning of the mechanical age. In her study of noise abatement campaigns between 1900 and 1940, Bijsterveld has traced the extent to which manifestations of technology during this time drastically changed the sonic environment of Western societies. The ferocity of these campaigns helps underscore how profoundly disturbing industrial-era noise was, treated as a costly threat to the health and efficiency of urban citizens, which would surely ‘shorten the life of countless sufferers’.22 The diabolical symphony of the mechanical age, experienced as what Thompson suggests was a peacetime version of shell shock, was initially received as symptomatic of the chaos and disorder of industrial cities in the modern era. Every new invention created new sounds, which again and again became the topic of heated controversy. Thompson’s study of noise abatement in New York demonstrates how little the sound world circa 1930 had in common with that of 1900; how people responded to this dramatic auditory transformation also evidences the way American culture was successfully able to recast its relationship to the city in the early 20th century.23

The extent to which each innovation caused auditory disruption and, literally, headaches for those living in industrialising cities in the early years of the 20th century presents a very different ‘picture’ of the urban experience to that of the modern phantasmagoria of a world of illumination and spectacle. The effort to amplify the historical experience of modernisation as made by those such as Bijsterveld Thompson, and Sterne has in this respect established new accounts of the interrelationship between acoustic technologies and the experience of urbanisation. Sounding the auditory effects of historical urban transformations underscores these as a dislocation of the senses, such that previous habitual modes of dwelling – for example, the expectation of quietude – confront the crushing reality of everyday life, the reality of a relentlessly noisy, mediated soundscape. As The Times reported, in 1926: ‘The machine age has brought so many new noises into existence, the ear has not learned how to handle them. It is still bewildered by them.’24 But, as evidenced by the eventual passing of the era of noise abatement campaigns, what was once received as unacceptable during the early years of mass automobile use eventually became increasingly normalised, a ‘natural’ and highly regulated part of urban life.

Listening to the modern auditory

Listening to the modern soundscape, we negotiate spaces shaped by the acoustic footprints of modern auditory technologies – whether of church bells, automobiles, or electro-acoustics – as well as by changing cultural forms and practices of listening.25 Along such lines, the concept of the ‘soundscape’ as established by aural ecologist R Murray Schafer presented the world as a ‘macro-cosmical musical composition’ in order to promote a greater attentiveness to the qualities of environmental sound. This process of ‘ear-cleaning’, as Schafer called it, was an important part of a new receptiveness to the sounds of the city.26 For Thompson, drawing on the work of Schafer and others such as Corbin, ‘The physical aspects of a soundscape consist not only of the sounds themselves, the waves of acoustical energy permeating the atmosphere in which people live, but also the material objects that create, and sometimes destroy, those sounds.’27 This notion of the soundscape is thus implicitly concerned with the very shaping of spatiality not as a container for action but as enacted as an everyday, embodied and highly mediated experience. Therefore, to those such as Schafer, if we listen more closely to the ambient architecture of the streetscape we become sensitised to sounds that affect how we live and, indeed, are a product of how we live.

The concept of the ‘modern auditory’, as advanced by Connor, also suggests that the peculiar relationship we have to sound within contemporary city spaces is one of refraction and disintegration. In The Soundscape of Modernity, Thompson traces the production of this modern auditory, and shows how technological manipulations such as sound-absorbing materials, as well as innovations in architectural acoustics and, importantly, the rise of electro-acoustics, enabled sound to be divorced from its source in a physical environment and instead received through technical forms of modulation. Thompson notes the way architects of the 1930s were able to introduce new limitations to the reverberatory impacts of noise using new building materials, thus creating new auditory experiences of modern interior spaces. Reverberation was reconceived as ‘noise’, such that, according to Thompson, it ‘lost its traditional meaning as the acoustic signature of a space, and the age old connection between sound and space ... was severed’.28

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the rise of electro-acoustic technologies such as loudspeakers, headsets, headphones, telephones and phonographs all entrenched electronically mediated sounds within everyday life. In fundamental ways, the relationships between sounds and spatiality were, during this time, dramatically reconfigured. Early innovators in the field of musical reproductions such as the Edison Company liked to compare the sounds of its phonographs to live music, encouraging ‘critical listening sessions’ in which the public were invited to compare the quality of the original with its reproduction. In this way, the act of listening to ‘reproduced sound’ came to be implicitly accepted as the cultural equivalent of the act of listening to live performances. Telephones, too, were initially popularised as a means to listen to the opera through what were then known as ‘telephone occasions’.29 The uncanny natures of these early electro-acoustic modes of communication were ultimately normalised – to become a soundscape in which, as Adorno has described it, ‘everything is to sound like the radio’.30

By virtue of its mutability, and expressly advanced through an allegiance to high fidelity, the rise of the modern auditory promotes the substitution of direct experience by technological forms of mediated experience. For Adorno, here the social is transformed to become an intimate, subjective inwardness, most clearly expressed through music. To Kracauer, writing in the early 20th century, radio leaves people in a state of ‘permanent receptivity’: ‘[s]ilent and lifeless, people sit side by side as if their souls were wandering far away’, attuned to the playground of ‘worldwide (broadcast) noises’.31 But although those within the Frankfurt School held deep ambivalences towards the modern auditory condition, avant-garde artists and practitioners were attracted to the synaesthetic nature of modern electro-acoustics. Sound became a privileged figure for synaesthesia, or the correspondence of the different senses, promoting fascination with the interconvertibility of sound and matter, or even sound as the enacted form of electromagnetic fluctuation itself.32 In 1933 Marinetti championed the new artistic form of the ‘wireless imagination’ based on the conditions of radio, which enabled ‘the immensification of space: no longer visible and frameable the stage becomes universal and cosmic’.33

More recent interest in auditory experience has recognised the shifting spatialities of the modern auditory through concepts such as synaesthesia, schizophonia and acousmatics. To Connor, modern auditory technologies of the early 20th century helped reconfigure the rationalised ‘Cartesian space’ of the visualist imagination, what he calls a more ‘singular space’ into a more plural one. The spatial experience of the perceiving self, enacted from ‘a single point of view from which the exterior self radiated in regular lines’, gave way, he suggests, to a ‘more fluid, mobile and voluminous conception of space, in which the observer-observed duality and distinctions between separated points and planes dissolve’. Connor suggests that the dependence of sound on the principles of resonance, transcription and induction implies the mutability of objects and bodies in space. He notes, as McLuhan did, that one can hear many sounds simultaneously, whereas it is impossible to see different visual objects at the same time without disposing them in a unified field of vision. Therefore, where auditory experience is dominant, ‘single, perspectival space gives way to plural, permeated space’.34 Schafer has characterised this modern auditory condition as being ‘schizophonic’, resulting from sounds being ‘torn from their natural sockets and given an amplified and independent existence’. He notes that vocal sound, for instance, ‘is no longer tied to a hole in the head but is free to issue from anywhere in the landscape’. As a consequence, ‘any sonic environment can now become any other sonic environment’. Sounds can be dislocated not only in space but in time: ‘A record collection that contains items from widely diverse cultures and historical periods would seem, to a person from any century but our own, an unreal and surrealistic juxtaposition.’35 Electro-acoustics are in this sense also understood as promoting an acousmatic experience of sound: an experience of listening in which the source of sound is without visual anchor, ‘hidden’ from the listener, whether in time or space.

In these different ways, the fields of sensory urbanism and sound history have helped redress the often-neglected role of sound in the constitution of modern urban experience. This work has amplified the shifting auditory spaces of the modern city, and underscored the importance of modern electro-acoustics in allowing for new spatial configurations and experiences, recombining the audio-visual relationship as one inherently open rather than ‘fixed’ as object-subjects. Tuning in to these shifting auditory spatialities has in turn enlivened an appreciation of architectural and spatial experience as not only inherently mediated but also, in its fluidity, deeply imbricated by shifting technological innovations and their cultures of practice.

Shifting spaces II: amplifying contemporary mobility

In light of the previous discussion, how then might we situate today’s cultures of urban listening, particularly in the mediated contexts of proliferating smartphone use? Urban sociologists have raised concerns about the impact of the smartphone, or indeed devices like the Sony Walkman of the 1980s, in creating spaces of separation between the listener and their urban surrounds. Michael Bull’s ethnographic work on contemporary iPod use is of particular note here, describing the urban environment of an iPod listener as one that is ‘re-appropriated and experienced as part of the user’s desire. Through her privatized auditory experience the listener gets “more” out of the environment, not by interacting with it but precisely by not interacting’. Bull suggests that within a culture of iPod or iPhone use, there are overpowering resources to ‘construct urban spaces to our liking as we move through them, enclosed in our pleasurable and privatized sound bubbles’.36 In this way personalised listening devices introduce a dialectic within the city space: as they promote an idealised or aestheticised experience of public spaces, in ways that conform or mimic the listener’s desires, they in turn further the absence of meaning attributed to those spaces. To Bull, iPod culture therefore ‘represents an expression of personal creativity coupled with a denial of the physicality of the city’. For the auditory space of the personal stereo listener, ‘switching off becomes tantamount to killing off their private world and returning them to the diminished space and duration of the disenchanted and mundane outside world’. Bull quotes Augé to conclude here that consequently ‘all spaces are potentially non-spaces’.37 Sociologist Tonkiss has reiterated this view by describing iPod use as ‘social deafness’ which offers ‘one kind of urban freedom – the lonely liberty of knowing no one is listening, no one likely to speak’. Tonkiss also suggests that for iPod users ‘immersed in a private soundscape, engaged in another interactive scene, you do not have to be in the city as a shared perceptual or social space’.38

Experts from the Noise Abatement Commission measure the sounds of Times Square in December 1929 Copyright NYT

These analyses engage with the spatial recombinations made possible through use of portable listening devices, by recognising the importance of sound in shaping a listener’s intimate experience of a location or spatial trajectory, one in which the auditory dimension – specifically a user’s private musical playlist – ‘frames’ the visual urban experience. Here the auditory is recognised not simply as a separate sensory experience, but always produces recombinatory effects on other senses. But the analysis prioritises the personal listening device as a technology of urban separation over other urban technologies. Surely, in reality, the listener will always negotiate her personal stereo use within the pervasive, technologically mediated, noisy terrain of the city itself. While music listening may be privileged in such accounts as a site of interiority, even of ‘social deafness’, the exterior soundscape of the city remains, surprisingly, rather silent. Of course, it is not; the city is always noisy, and it is noisy with the sounds of technology. Indeed, as Thompson has observed, ‘as consumers in search of a quality soundscape, we are left to take matters into our own hands, and in those hands one finds a gleaming iPod’.39

While use of smartphones, iPods and the like may evidence a tuning of the world to that of more private musical listening experience, we need to remember this act of listening takes place within a sensory context in which noise is always a constant, and in this sense reflects listeners’ acts of negotiation between different types of technologically constituted soundscapes. It is not simply a ‘withdrawal’ into a technologically mediated space. Indeed, Beer has argued that instead of thinking of the auditory spaces of smartphones as audio enclaves outside the soundscapes of the city, rather,

In this way we might progress an alternative reading of the contemporary mobile listener, who remains what Beer calls an ‘integrated yet distracted part of the aural ecology and informational structures of the city’. This reading integrates the perspective of aural ecologists who hear the urban soundscape as resonant of how we live, and who in turn promote the need for a greater analytical reconnection with the auditory compositions of our surroundings in order to better understand the workings of the city. Thus to Beer, the mobile device is an integral part of the contemporary aural ecology of the city, and might in fact allow for a more active orientation toward the ‘urban information overlay’ of the urban soundscape, by enabling individuals to rework their own aural ecologies of the city – a kind of ‘cutting and pasting’ of musical performances into our soundscapes.

We see this approach in the work of sound practitioners whose work is focused on the newfound visual/spatial experiential terrain established by portable listening devices. The ability of these devices to create synaesthetic relationships between what a listener sees and the sounds heard has elsewhere been described as a form of ‘physical cinema’, where the material world becomes a quasi-cinematic ‘image’ to the mobile soundtrack. For sound researcher and artist Betsy Biggs, the mobile audio device acts as ‘a sort of emotional and aesthetic prosthetic’ which is capable of extending and transforming the listener’s surroundings into what Thibaud has called the ‘city screen’.41 Within such arenas of practice, the capacity to generate cinema-like experiences of a spatial environment has attracted sound practitioners interested in using the mobile listening platform tactically as a means to generate alternate narratives of place.

The narrative composition of the soundwalk remains one of the central ways sound artists have engaged with this terrain. In 1974, Hildegard Westerkamp defined the soundwalk as ‘an excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment ... exposing our ears to every sound around us no matter where we are’.42 But the proliferation of mobile listening devices has encouraged a shift away from the soundwalk as an exercise in actively listening to an existing environment, often without speaking, to one involving the construction of a mediated, augmented listening experience that layers recorded sound with the contemporary aural environment. Sounds used in a soundwalk are often combinations of voice, music, and/or ambient recordings, which are designed to guide the listener’s experience of that environment.43

Most prominent in this field is the work of Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, whose soundwalk The Missing Voice (Case Study B), set in east London in the late 1990s, dealt with connections between the self and the city. The walk is driven by Cardiff’s own narration as well as ambient recordings of the route made using binaural recording equipment: fragments of conversations, the noises of vehicles, shopkeepers, and so on. Pinder reflects on the experience of Cardiff’s walk as one that ‘emphasises the sensuousness of walking as a mode of apprehending the city that is tactile, aural and olfactory as well as visual’. Though it sharpens attention toward the walker’s environment, it does so in a way that encourages an inward awareness, what Pinder considers an almost ‘detached sense of the urban scene’.44

More recently, smartphones have broadened the way sound practitioners engage the potentials of sound and place in their work. Sound mapping projects such as Sonic Geographies, developed by the London group Proboscis in 2005, took sound as the entry point for excavating and mapping urban experience and invisible infrastructures of the city. A series of experiments and scenarios were developed to operate as maps and journeys but also as highly personal renderings of sonic experience – sounds of the personal world in conversation with sounds of the city.45 The popularity of smartphones makes them an important platform for a range of curated auditory experiences, such that podcasts, museum tours and soundwalks, each engaging listeners in aspects of their immediate location, are now widespread.

Toby Butler’s work has combined elements of museum interpretation, soundwalks, and aural ecology to develop a series called Memoryscapes through London’s Docklands, which offer a personalised experience of the urban landscape, interpreted and imagined using oral history sources. Butler has approached the idea of the audio or soundwalk conceptually, as an active and immersive way to both practise cultural geography and to present oral history. His own research is focused on using oral history to gather experiences and memories of people at riverside locations along the River Thames. These recordings are used in the composition of ‘memoryscapes’, landscapes interpreted and imagined using the memories of others, which might encourage people to encounter parts of the Thames they might not have considered exploring before. Butler’s memoryscapes also deliberately extend the space of the oral history recording from outside the museum context into a coherent spatial context, using techniques borrowed from sound art practice and from critical spatial practices established by the situationist dérive and the alternative pedestrianism of de Certeau.46

In this way sound practice can use the portable device to engage listeners in a dialogue about the qualities of space and place. Indeed, many practitioners use the seemingly privatised nature of this experience as a way of disrupting the more ‘regulated’ movements of urban space. Where Sennett and others have argued that urban space pacifies the body, in which movement is typified by rapid (often car) transit without arousal, these sound practitioners intend to introduce a more enlivened sensory experience, not simply through the ‘pleasurable sound bubbles’ of music, but by actively overcoding hidden elements of place within the auditory terrain. By layering elements of past and present, mediated and real, internal and external, the sound practitioner seeks to offer listeners a greater awareness of their sensory environment, using techniques such as using binaural recordings to provide a ‘surround sound’ experience of the mediated soundscape. Thus Janet Cardiff’s artistic collaborator, George Bures Miller, once described her soundwalks as ‘MSG for the senses’.47

The practice of calling upon memory in site-specific soundworks provides a basis for practitioner Betsey Biggs to consider how the privatised listening experience of the audio device can create a sense of shared experience among listeners. Biggs composes memory-catalysed narratives which, while themselves unique, are intended to provoke reflections among listeners of the commonalities that exist across different lived experiences – cultural, national or even archetypal commonalities. Biggs is interested here in how artists can creatively manipulate the ‘push-pull’ between the dreaming and waking states, between the ‘cinematic lull’ enabled by the privatised sound bubble of mobile listening and the hyper-sensory awareness enabled by the layered, site-specific, surround sound narrative. Butler, too, considers this question in relation to the work of public historians and memory. As they draw from spoken memory or oral history, Butler’s Memoryscape walks seek to make connections with other times, symbols and places, thus making the act of memory a nomadic, mobile process, sometimes affirming dominant collective memory but often opposing it. In this way Butler uses the audio spaces of the mobile device to resituate oral history in the landscape, making it reverberate publicly, and by doing so, elaborating a more nuanced, complex and open sense of place.48


The work of sound theorists, historians and practitioners awakens us to the often neglected role of sound in the constitution of urban experience. By foregrounding the mutability and relationality of sound, we perceive new spatial configurations and histories that allow an appreciation of contemporary spatial experience as not just inherently mediated, but always-already co-constituted by the shifting technological innovations of modernity and their cultures of listening practice. Today, cultural practices of smartphone use continue to reformulate, in subtle ways, the interactions between listeners in the public spaces of the city. Site-specific sound practice exploits this experience to offer alternative, micro-narratives of place which at once recognise the synaesthetic qualities of sound in reframing the visual, tactile world around us while also opening up the potential for a heightened awareness of the listener’s own point of reference: their own pathways of sense-making across the contemporary city-screens of the urban world. Such practice points to the continued, productive interplay between sound, place and space, and memory, and helps to further consolidate the importance of sensory urbanism within architectural and urban studies. Through these sound practices, the permeability of space as what Massey has called the ‘simultaneity of stories so far’ continues to be made audible.49